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Former Soviet gold medal-winning gymnast finds opportunity, LDS Church in the U.S.

By Ernie Shannon

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, April 10 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Soviet training program required near total devotion to the sport, and it produced athletes with extraordinary discipline and endurance. These qualities enabled the Soviet Union and, later, Russia, to dominate Olympic gymnastics from its first appearance in the competition in 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, through the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. A demand for excellence came in part from Soviet leaders who expected medals. For the Soviet athletes, the drive for excellence was more practical.

“Everyone wanted the benefit of going to the camps and competing internationally. We also received stipends every month, and though it wasn’t a lot, it was sufficient," Sharipov said. "The national team was a door to opportunity and living standards that most of our people simply didn’t have access to.”

By 1992, the Soviet Union had imploded with many of its 15 republics gaining independence practically overnight. The Soviet national gymnastics team now became the Unified Team drawing its talent from the same republics as before but having to recognize that except for the short time between the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 and the Olympics in 1992, the newly independent republics might have organized their own Olympic teams.

Nevertheless, at the Barcelona Olympics that year, the results were the same. The Unified Team outdistanced its competition, taking 20 medals in gymnastics compared to the next best team — China with eight. Sharipov earned his first gold medal as part of the Unified Team when the team won the top spot on the men's gymnastics podium.

In 1994, Sharipov won a silver medal on the parallel bars at the World Championships and grabbed the gold medal in the same event in 1995. The stage was set for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. By this time, the Unified Team had ceased to exist and several of the new republics formed their own Olympic teams, including Ukraine, for which Sharipov competed in 1996. In Atlanta, he won his second gold medal for his performance on the parallel bars.

“I had what I would call my best-ever competition that year in Atlanta, and those days will always live in my memory,” Sharipov said.

Searching for a perfect landing

With the Ukrainian program in decline after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Sharipov saw little competitive future in Ukraine. So he and his wife, Tatiana Priatseva moved to Australia in 1997 with their two children. He hoped to gain citizenship there, make the Australian gymnastics team and compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. However, his venture Down Under ended before the year was out, and the family returned to Ukraine, where he and Tatiana eventually divorced, separating Sharipov from his two children as well.

In 1998, Sharipov began having problems with one of his arms, and one day his arm briefly stopped functioning. Exams revealed a weakness in his spinal column, and doctors recommended he retire from gymnastics, cautioning that continued activity could risk paralysis.

“Most gymnasts develop back and leg problems because of the many thousands of times you are landing on your feet with great force, putting pressure on your spine,” Sharipov said.

He walked away from competitive gymnastics, retiring after 12 years of being in the sport professionally and nearly a lifetime of dedication to the sport. Sharipov attempted to start several businesses. The enterprises failed within months, putting his former wife and children, and his parents, whom he also supported, in jeopardy. Then, a young woman he had gotten to know and with whom he had become engaged, passed away unexpectedly, leaving Sharipov in despair.

“I was as low as I had ever been in my life, but I held onto one hope and that was that I could find work in the United States where I had visited several times during my career and had been able to develop some contacts here,” he said.

Rebuilding a life in gymnastics

Arriving in Oklahoma in 2000, he found work at the Bart Connor Gymnastics Academy in Norman. There he also met Amber Adams, who was also working at the academy and who had graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Russian. The two immediately became friends. As time progressed, they became closer, but Sharipov was hesitant about getting more deeply involved after experiencing divorce and the loss of a fiancée.

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